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Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

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Gretchen Hult Pierce Led Us Here

July 23rd, 2021 by dk

Hippie icon Chez Ray Sewell had seen it all, touring and cooking for the Grateful Dead, starting and ending half a dozen local restaurants, being a fixture at the Oregon Country Fair for decades. So it was completely fitting that the WOW Hall hosted on Oct. 20, 2018 the First Annual Ray Sewell Wake, featuring members of the Chautauqua Circus and the still-alive but infirm Ray Sewell.

Sewell died a little more than a month later so he never made it to the Second Annual Ray Sewell Wake. But he blazed a trail for others to follow. Why not say all the nice things you can about somebody’s life before they leave us? Really, why not?

Gretchen Hult Pierce didn’t travel in the same circles as Sewell, but she’s gotten similar treatment from her friends and admirers since she entered hospice care. The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce gathered testimonials from their First Citizen award winners to praise one of their own.

Dozens or hundreds have kept their vigils for Gretchen more privately. A WOW Hall tribute may not be in the offing, but I know she read the newspaper daily. I’m writing this midweek. Hospice nurses are not sure she’ll make it to Friday morning but she’s defied expectations like that before.

She told me once that she appreciates my willingness to make sweeping statements because she can quickly determine whether she agrees with me or not. “It’s a real time-saver,” she quipped, half smiling.

So here’s one that I hope she hears before she leaves us. Gretchen has done more than anyone else to make Eugene the small city it has become. She demanded integrity and efficiency. If she ruffled a few feathers, she accepted it as a real time-saver. She often said out loud what others wished they could.

I served with Gretchen on Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey’s commission for economic development in the late 1990s. City staff made a presentation at our first meeting. They asked if anyone had any questions. Gretchen did. “What exactly is our scope of work and how will our success be measured?” If she didn’t get a straight answer, she didn’t return for the second meeting.

Gretchen was always hard-driving and no-nonsense. She might prefer direct and honest, if only to save the hyphens. She came from the timber/development sector of our leadership, but with two important differences. She built a career for herself outside of Oregon before family obligations pulled her back. And she’s a woman.

Eugene has a heritage of strong women who made things happen. Like Carolyn Chambers, Ruth Bascom, and Ruby Brockett, Gretchen took charge. She leaves behind her a longer list. Among them: Jean Tate, Liz Cawood, Kitty Piercy, Jeanne Staton, Ginevra Ralph, Jenny Ulum, Anne Marie Levis, Sue Prichard, Ann Marie Mehlum, Sarah Medary, Bev Smith.… The list is long.

Everyone reading this should be grateful for all that Gretchen has done, hopefully before she’s done doing it. What exactly was her scope of work and how will her success be measured? Look around you.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at Gretchen passed peacefully just after midnight on the day this essay appeared in the newspaper. Her friends read her an earlier draft two nights earlier.

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Kristof for Governor?

July 22nd, 2021 by dk

New York Times columnist and native Oregonian Nicholas Kristof is thinking about running for governor in 2022. Willamette Week broke the news over the weekend. “I’m honestly interested in what my fellow Oregonians have to say about that,” he told them. Two days later, the New York  Times confirmed that Kristof is taking a leave of absence while he considers his options.

Here are five reasons why Kristof could be a successful candidate and our 39th governor.

Reason No. 1: He’s famous

Like it or not, name recognition is the first hurdle every statewide candidate must first overcome. Voters are very hesitant to vote for anyone they’ve never heard of. In rural Oregon, where Kristof grew up, they’re hesitant to vote for somebody they’ve never met. A certain reality TV star has shown how far fame can take somebody.

Kristof’s story could be both honest about him and affirming for Oregon. Country boy makes good in the big city, but returns to his roots to give back. You can take the boy out of Oregon, but you can’t take Oregon out of the boy.

Reason No. 2: He’s not a politician

Most candidates for governor build their name recognition by running for statewide office and losing. That formula creates burdens when governing begins. Candidates with a history inside the system can’t help but accumulate obligations.

Outsider candidates have different opportunities. Kristof clearly recognizes this: “All I know for sure is that we need someone with leadership and vision so that folks from all over the state can come together to get us back on track. We need new leadership from outside the broken political system.”

Reason No. 3: He’s smart

Kristof is a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes. His worldwide readership has come to expect bright ideas from him, whether it’s about stopping genocide in Darfur, curbing sex trafficking, or addressing death-by-desperation in rural America. 

More importantly, he’s the right kind of smart. Being knowledgeable is more dangerous than helpful for a chief executive. Being curious, on the other hand, is an asset too seldom valued or modeled at the top of complex organizations.

Reason No. 4: He’s compassionate

Most of the compelling stories Kristof has brought to his readers over the last 30 years have been about tragedies that could have been averted with better policies. He stands against the belief that journalists should be dispassionate. He follows up, helping organizations that fight the injustices he exposes.

One of his growing concerns is the widening urban-rural divide. He believes deeply that we’re talking past each other, instead of with one another. A political campaign could build bridges across those chasms. Kristof can experiment with what works and what doesn’t to mend that rift — here and across the nation.

Reason No. 5: He can’t really lose

Kristof may not win, but he’ll learn a lot about what could heal this gaping wound that imperils America. If he loses and resumes his day job, he’ll be writing with a newfound moral authority. Run, Nick, run!


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Rumsfeld Missed “Unknown Knowns”

July 21st, 2021 by dk

Donald Rumsfeld didn’t originate the concept of “known unknowns” but he brought the matrix (“the Johari window” to psychologists) into popular awareness. And for that he will be remembered after his death last week.

His pontification to the press about weapons of mass destruction (and warfare in general) was derided at the time, but reporters were probably reacting to his lecturing ton. Journalists bristle at any condescension, real or imagined. It’s an occupational hazard of being asked to be an expert on something different every day.

Here is Rumsfeld’s statement that was awarded the 2003 Foot in Mouth Award by the Plain English Campaign: 

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Had this been a prepared statement, Rumsfeld might have used the verb “to know” sparingly for clarity, but he was speaking off-the-cuff. Dinner party patter and microphones don’t mix well, unless alcohol is flowing. The Johari window may have been curtained by verbal decoration. The insight was still clear.

We should acknowledge a vast expanse — all of what we don’t know that we don’t know. It puts in perspective how little we know we don’t know and how even littler what we actually know that we know. You can learn how the theorem applies to you. Go to Wikipedia and type in “Special:Random” to be taken to a random page.

Some people read the randomly chosen entry, then click on an embedded link. They read that entry and click on a link. They continue until they reach a topic they already knew something about. Some people have time on their hands.

All that we know we know amounts to the thinnest sliver of what can be known. It’s good to be reminded of this. It’s humbling, but also reassuring. It fuels the imagination and rewards curiosity. Whatever certainties we harbor are miniscule. This puts them in context and us in our place.

Overlooked by Rumsfeld (but not by many commentators who followed him) was the fourth quadrant of the Johari window: those things that we know without knowing that we know them. Meditation techniques work to acquaint us with bodily sensations that don’t demand our attention until they fail — breath, warmth, balance, harmony.

Other “unknown knowns” are environmental — sun and shade, breeze on boughs, distant sounds, colors and fragrances, the terrain under our feet. There’s so much we’re experiencing but not acknowledging. Our lives are fuller than we know, waiting to be known.

And then there are those things that cannot be verified but are known nevertheless. Our family loves us. Life will continue. Our next breath. Not everyone puts God in this fourth quadrant, but faith is an essential corrective when attempting to summarize all that is known and unknown. I wonder if Donald Rumsfeld would agree.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Vaccine Resistance May Require Neighborly Solution

July 16th, 2021 by dk

A neighborly solution to vaccine hesitancy

Summertime in Crystal Lake, Ill. is muggier and buggier than Oregonians are used to, but I’m sure President Biden had no trouble finding an ice cream shop during his visit last week. My youngest brother lives in Crystal Lake, which is at the edge (or just beyond) what most would consider suburban Chicago — “Chicagoland” in the local vernacular.

Biden has been barnstorming the Midwest, touting his “Build Back Better” programs. The President’s travels have taken him to a series of small towns just beyond the reach of Democratic strongholds like Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

If Biden comes to Oregon, don’t expect him to spend much time in Portland or Eugene. He might land here, because our airport has a runway large enough for Air Force One. He might duck in for a scoop at Prince Pückler’s before he leaves, if he can cut in line. But he’ll likely spend the bulk of his time in a place like Roseburg or Klamath Falls.

This is by design. His advisors choose spots that feel more Republican than their surroundings, small dots of red on bluish landscapes. These are places where liberals and conservatives are still likely to be talking to one another, defying the so-called “big sort” that increasingly divides our two political worlds.

Biden really seems to believe in his bones that his presidency will succeed if Americans simply talk with one another. It sounds Pollyanna, but it’s really shrewd politics. Truth be told, we’re all more alike than different. Telling the truth is how Biden intends to lead.

It remains to be seen whether we have the courage to follow that lead. (Prepare to squirm a bit wherever you are seated.) He’s making easy in places like Traverse City, Mich. and LaCrosse, Wis. After visiting these smallish cities, neighbors can’t help comparing notes about what they saw and heard.

The rest of us will have to work a little harder. Fortunately, we have a topic that concerns every last one of us. COVID-19 is still among us, even if it’s not currently rampaging. Vaccine hesitancy is the emerging threat to public health. We must get more neighbors vaccinated.

Yes, neighbors. Biden can’t convince many more people, but neighbors might. He wants a door-to-door campaign. He’s not planning to send jack-booted police with hypodermic needles to people’s doorsteps. He’s asking us to talk to our neighbors about sensible measures that could keep them safe.

They may need a ride to a clinic, or child care. Or the promise of chicken soup if the shot drags them down. Feeling not alone is often enough to try something new. But starting that conversation is hard.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown could make it easier, while also helping the economy. She could ask restaurants to subsidize dinners between neighbors as an incentive and a conversation starter. Those who are already vaccinated would invite a friend or neighbor to also get vaccinated, with a free dinner out for the two of them afterwards.

What they talk about over dinner hardly matters. Getting them talking together is enough.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

July 9th, 2021 by dk

I was at Jerry’s Home Improvement in Springfield a couple of weeks ago buying some loose screws. The fellow next to me grabbed a pen from the “clean pens” receptacle, marked his purchase bag for the cashier, then replaced the pen in the same receptacle.

I thought to myself, “Hygiene theater notwithstanding, you monster! Now the ‘clean pens’ receptacle has at least one dirty pen.” (Yes, even my thoughts contain dependent clauses. I blame my liberal arts education for this, though the cause and effect of this malady are admittedly blurred.)

I had witnessed the same sterile stylus slip in the bulk foods aisle of Market of Choice the week before. I was in the granola section, so we can be sure this monster marker misanthropy is not limited to a small portion of the ideological spectrum.

Shortly after the dirty pen debacle, a friend of a neighbor asked if he could throw some of his extra trash bags into my recycling bin. “No!” I said, swallowing the exclamation point. He assured me that no one would know. I didn’t tell him it was too late for that. His thoughts probably don’t include dependent clauses.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

If nine people put their dirty pens in the right place and one doesn’t, the actions of the nine don’t matter when the eleventh user grabs a pen. How many errant trash bags does it take for an entire truckful of recycling to be detoured to the dump? Not many.

All people are created equal, but the choices each person makes do not have equivalent impact. We know the cliché about a few bad apples, but we don’t often think of ourselves as stuck inside that barrel. But we are.

Every free society is held together with a two-part epoxy. Trust and transparency combine to form the bonds we rely upon. We’re that eleventh pen-user, relying on the ten who came before us. If one ignored the rules, the other nine could have ignored the rules too; the result would be the same.

I chose the dirty pens to make the point because we all agree it’s a small thing, and epidemiologists no longer believe most people can catch the coronavirus from a used plastic pen. I didn’t really think that fellow beside me at Jerry’s was a monster.

Other instances have more severe consequences. Condominium owners in Surfside balked at paying large repair bills recommended by structural engineers. Two years and multiple board member resignations later, the overdue maintenance work was about to begin when the tower collapsed, probably killing more than 100 residents.

Will America ever have a free and fair election again, so long as there is a vocal minority insisting that the results cannot be trusted? Transparency without trust will not create a bond between us. Trust without transparency won’t either.

How do we remind the tenth pen user to consider his or her impact on the eleventh? It’s up to each of us. I failed. That exclamation point is still stuck in my craw.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Land of the Free, No Longer Home of the Brave

July 8th, 2021 by dk

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Over the past 250 years, we’ve changed our ideas but not our ideals.

We no longer limit these self-evident truths to (white) men. We don’t always ascribe their endowment to a Creator. We’re less sure that certain Rights are inalienable. We parcel out those rights to some while denying them to others, as if human rights are a limited commodity or a consumable product.

Our largest reboot of Thomas Jefferson’s majestic preamble to the Declaration of Independence concerns the triad at the end of his first sentence. Our understanding of these values changed slowly, so we haven’t really noticed.

“Life” hasn’t changed much, though anti-abortion activists would disagree. “Liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” most definitely have changed, and dramatically. We repeat the words that our forebears uttered, but we’ve given those words new meanings.

Happiness no longer connotes connectedness with others. Happiness represents to us the absence of conflict, struggle, or pain. Sacrifice is viewed in opposition to happiness. Once sacrifice was understood as the necessary precursor to happiness. We see ourselves as entitled to happiness, not stewards of a gift. We want the effect without its cause.

The enlightenment ideal of happiness was rooted in the classical Greek concept of “eudaemonia.” Collective striving — the pursuit — aimed to achieve a common good. Sharing a cup of sugar with someone in need benefited your future sugarless self. You participated in your neighbor’s barn raising so he would join yours. 

We’ve forgotten this: Everyone’s happier when everyone’s happy.

When happiness included obligations, it was self-limiting. Eudaemonia did not require endless barn raisings or limitless sugar sharing. Those limits created circles that defined our communities. Society grew strong when those circles were chained together. Now we strive endlessly for more and more private bliss.

Likewise, liberty no longer means what it meant to Jefferson and his ilk. John Adams wrote, “I would define liberty to be a power to do as we would be done by. The definition of liberty to be the power of doing whatever the law permits does not seem satisfactory.”

Thomas Paine echoed the pact that had won the Revolutionary War: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Jefferson agreed: “It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case others.”

Our modern ideas about freedom were captured in 1966 by the Oscar-winning lyrics to “Born Free”: “Born free, as free as the wind blows / As free as the grass grows / Born free to follow your heart / Born free, and life is worth living / But only worth living / ‘cause you’re born free.”

Do you hear sacrifice or commonality in this depiction of freedom? I don’t.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Burning Questions When it Hits 110

July 4th, 2021 by dk

Questions that don’t occur until it hits 110:

  • Am I feeling this heat from above or below?
  • Is there anything I need in the grocery store’s freezer aisle?
  • Is this what towns without snowplows feel when a blizzard strikes?
  • Do sunglasses only make the world look cooler? And why exactly does that help?
  • When a temperature sign reads 99, is that only because it lacks a third digit?
  • Regarding air conditioning, what is conditioning whom?
  • At what point does a breeze only make it feel like the heat is chasing us?
  • How fortunate is it that Hayward Field wasn’t the site of any weather-related tragedies?
  • Who do I know in Arizona or Texas who can give me some advice?
  • Is this sweat on my forehead or condensation?
  • If this is our “June gloom,” what will the dog days of August be like?
  • Could they bring back double features just for this occasion?
  • Am I sure there’s nothing more that I need in the freezer aisle?
  • Shouldn’t neighborhoods practicing disaster preparedness be using their “OK” signs?
  • Is tipping your mail carrier allowed?
  • Can we add wind turbines to the Coast Range peaks, just to move their air inland?
  • What’s a good recipe using mostly chocolate and ice?
  • You know we’re past the halfway mark to literally boiling, right?
  • Why didn’t somebody invent dedicated solar-powered air conditioners before we all got electric ones?
  • Did you notice there are no costumed sign-twirlers on the sidewalks today?
  • If we adopted a siesta strategy, would we be able to give it up in winter?
  • What’s a good wintry movie to watch tonight?
  • How lucky are we to have the Bonneville Power Administration backing up our local power providers?
  • Do people elsewhere get used to thinking of the sun as an adversary?
  • Has Eugene now qualified for a Burning Man franchise?
  • Are fragrances the least appreciated pleasures carried to us by moisture?
  • When we learn new terms for weather anomalies like “heat dome” or “polar vortex,” does that mute the alarm of climate change’s general havoc?
  • After scoring 100 points, did basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain think, “I could have gotten 110”?
  • Is it true people are backing out of their commitments, just to get cold feet?
  • Are people quitting their addictions because “cold turkey” suddenly sounds good?
  • Can we develop a summertime version of the Thomas Egan Warming Centers before we face the fatality who becomes its namesake?
  • When did we last describe any local weather condition as “punishing”?
  • Does being 110 feel this bad?
  • If summer is starting early this year, are we in danger of it also ending late?
  • Exactly how much heat can the smallest parts of our infrastructure withstand? What’s the equivalent of the Space Shuttle’s brittle o-rings, waiting to break the systems we rely on for health and safety?
  • Can I move my bed closer to the ice cube maker?
  • How do weeds keep growing when nothing else does?
  • If I set my oven on “low,” can it double as an air conditioner?
  • If I give you a cold shoulder, will you give me a cold shoulder?
  • If I cut myself, would my blood feel cool to the touch?
  • Is there just one thing in the frozen foods section that I’ve never thought to try before?
  • Can we at least arrange a Zoom session with a rainstorm?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Infrastructure Deal Hits Detour

June 30th, 2021 by dk

Democrats in Washington were caught playing “Bad Cop, Bad Cop” with Republicans on infrastructure initiatives last week. If you’ve never heard of this negotiating strategy, join the club. Here’s what happened and how you might make sense of it.

Just a few hours after a bipartisan infrastructure deal had been struck last Thursday, President Biden answered questions. He made clear — too clear, in hindsight — that he expected this bipartisan “hard infrastructure” bill to be accompanied by a “human infrastructure” bill that will be passed under budget reconciliation rules with only Democratic votes.

Biden didn’t have to say anything like that. He could have been the Good Cop, promising to work for both bills, signing whatever comes to his desk. He could have said that. He should have said that. And by Saturday afternoon, he was saying that.

The only Bad Cop in this negotiation should have been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Almost exactly three hours before Biden accidentally said the quiet part out loud, Pelosi gave the press a colorful quote that the bills would move in tandem or not at all: “There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we are going to have the reconciliation bill.”

Pelosi controls what is brought to the House for a vote. She has the power to leave any bipartisan bill on hard infrastructure to languish unless or until the Senate delivers the partisan human infrastructure bill as well. Pelosi probably relished the opportunity to give Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans a taste of their own medicine.

The president won’t have any infrastructure bills to sign if Pelosi blocks either or both bills from reaching the House floor. So Biden didn’t need to say what he would do if one bill arrived without the other. The plan was already set and stated.

Maybe he felt the need to put conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on notice that their support of both tracks would be essential. It’s not uncommon for Senators to ignore anything said or done in the House of Representatives.

Pelosi showed a shrewd communication strategy to make sure her message broke through. Using “ain’t” is strong language from the always-composed Speaker. Would Senators take notice? We’ll never know because the President was stepping on the Speaker’s lines, confusing any “Good Cop, Bad Cop” strategy.

Why didn’t Biden take the high road? It was available to him. He may have simply strayed from the script. The man is so earnest he sometimes can’t help saying what he believes should be said — even when he shouldn’t be the one saying it. Remember how Biden’s quip about gay marriage broke President Obama’s recalcitrance?

Will this faux pas doom the entire infrastructure package? Probably not. There’s plenty of reasons both parties want something passed and Pelosi will not be denied her legacy achievement. But last week’s misstep does shift the center of gravity.

The infrastructure bills that pass will be less ambitious and more arduous than liberal Democrats had hoped. We can’t be certain that’s not exactly what President Biden, an inveterate centrist, wanted in his heart of hearts.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Take Time to Celebrate Juneteenth

June 25th, 2021 by dk

It all happened so quickly. Last Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously consented to create our first new national holiday since 1983. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives followed with a 415-to-14 vote. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law. Most federal workers received Friday off with pay.

The United States Postal Service buttressed its brand for slow response times by delivering Friday’s mail as usual. Postal Service officials complained that there “there wasn’t time to shut down.” Even to do nothing, the Postal Service requires more time. (We’ll come back to this idea in a moment.)

It caught everybody off guard because it happened so fast, and from such an unlikely source. Washington passes, signs and enacts a new law in fewer than 100 hours? That’s like witnessing spontaneous combustion inside a turtle pond.

Nobody had time to consider how to celebrate this new holiday. Fortunately, we have almost a year to think about the most appropriate way to mark the moment when the news of slavery’s end finally reached Galveston, Texas in 1865.

America doesn’t often celebrate endings. Our aspirational nature favors beginnings. July 4, Independence Day, marks the day we declared our independence, not the day we won it. Tens of thousands of casualties and more than seven years later, independence was secured with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.

Juneteenth does it differently. It marks the day when waiting ended.

Texas slaves learned on June 19, 1865 what had been decreed for them on January 1, 1863. The Civil War ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Freedom was fought for and won, but liberation had not yet occurred.

Some things take time. For those slaves in Texas, knowing about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from 2 1/2 years ago didn’t matter. Hearing General Order No. 3 recited from Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger made it real. Sometimes the important decree comes after the victory.

I suggest we commemorate Juneteenth each year by doing things that take time. Marinate a meat. Incubate a culture. Open a new novel. Take a long hike.

Portland should move its marvelous Time-Based Art Festival from September to mid-June. We should create memorable moments each Juneteenth — just as we did in 1865. We all have moments in our lives when everything changes. They are usually the culmination of unseen progressions, like union armies marching southwest, notable only in retrospect.

Whether it’s Shakespeare in the Park or watching a slackrope walker traversing between forest trees, feeling our bated breath can remind us: Our lives are constantly in motion, but experienced and chronicled as key moments — when meaning takes shape, when decisions are made, when changes occur.

As they say, “How much has to happen to you before something occurs to you?”

Time itself seems to be receding from modern life. So much is done instantly. Waiting is becoming a lost skill. We would do well to celebrate waiting each June 19th, just as we celebrate anticipation every July 4.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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This Filibuster Fix will Revive the Senate Itself

June 18th, 2021 by dk

Everybody wants to fix the filibuster. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to require nonstop talking again. Stacey Abrams wants to exempt voting rights bills from the 60-vote requirement. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests the threshold to end debate should be lowered to 55. Former President Barack Obama wants the filibuster discarded altogether.

The truth is that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can change the filibuster rule in whatever way he wants, provided he has the unanimous support of his caucus. Unfortunately for him, 50 votes for any of the proposed remedies is not yet apparent. Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin has said he is open to modest filibuster reforms, but he hasn’t clarified what those might be.

And so the casting about continues, searching for a way to increase bipartisanship and decrease obstruction in the United States Senate. I’ll tell you my own suggestion, but not until I show why Democrats shouldn’t be let off the hook for how the Senate has devolved.

Blame Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the abuse of the filibuster all you want. It was Harry Reid and President Obama who opened Pandora’s Box.

Obama’s favorite sport was basketball — a non-contact sport. Reid was a former boxer, never backing away from the rough-and-tumble. Obama might have used Reid as a wingman, compensating for his relative inexperience on Capitol Hill. Instead, Reid became his henchman, doing the dirty work Obama disdained.

Obama vetoed only 12 bills over eight years. Congress overrode only one. It passed the Senate 97-1. (Reid dissented alone.) Obama avoided legislative battles by having Reid block them. Legendary Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer referred to Reid as “[Obama’s] living veto pen.”

There’s more. Reid retained the power to change the filibuster rule whenever he wanted. Senate rules allow such a change only on the first day of each new legislative session. What no one noticed until Reid is that the Senate’s “day” doesn’t end until leadership gavels out the day’s business. Reid refused to gavel out, so every day was technically a continuation of the first legislative day.

Republicans and McConnell don’t own the franchise of Senatorial cynicism.

So what can be done to promote Senate bipartisanship and discourage Senate obstructionism? Schumer should amplify an equally important institutional tradition. Unlike the leadership-driven House, the Senate has traditionally given individual Senators extraordinary power. (Google “blue slip” for just one example.) These powers usually slow or stop things, but not always.

Lower the threshold to end Senate debate from 60 to whatever the majority caucus has, plus one or two. This will give individual Senators in the minority the opportunity to shape and propel the majority’s legislative agenda. Instead of Schumer having to constantly worry about Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, let McConnell take a turn worrying about Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski.

This would do more than reform the filibuster. Schumer and Democrats can reform the Senate itself, giving power back to members that’s been slowly seized by leadership. Oh, and limit future rule changes to the first real day of each new legislative session.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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